The number of coronavirus cases in the US passed 556,000 on Sunday, a day when millions of Americans were forced to observe the Easter holiday in the shadow of the pandemic.
It was an Easter Sunday like none other. Many churches marked the holiday in a way that honored social distancing efforts, like streaming services online or holding worship at drive-in theaters, congregants huddled in their cars.
But some planned to gather anyway, putting public health restrictions on a collision course with religious institutions.
The country has recorded at least 22,073 deaths and 556,044 cases so far during the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. All 50 states are under a federal disaster declaration for the first time in US history.
On Saturday night, the Justice Department said it expects to take action this week against regulations on religious institutions, as states and local governments try to curtail gatherings.
Various courts are already hearing cases about the regulations, but the department said it may file lawsuits alongside churches.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the state amended a public health order banning mass gatherings to include houses of worship.
“The risk is simply too great,” the governor said on Twitter Saturday. She said she was “so grateful for the support & cooperation from the vast majority of religious leaders of all faiths who have already made the difficult decision to cancel services in the interest of public health.”
In Kentucky, authorities said they would record license plates of those who show up to any gatherings and hand that information over to the local health department. That will require those people to stay quarantined for 14 days, Gov. Andy Beshear said.
The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, tried to stop a church from holding a drive-in Easter service, even though drive-in liquor stores are still permitted under the state’s stay-at-home policy. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Saturday that overturned the effort.
In New York, at least 758 people died on Saturday, bringing the statewide death toll to 9,385, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, adding the death rate there has flattened “at a terribly high rate.”
“That’s the one number that I look forward to seeing drop as soon as I open my eyes in the morning,” he said in a news conference Sunday.
But despite the bleak news, Cuomo shared a message of hope likening the pandemic to a “cold winter, where the earth becomes barren,” that will eventually give way to spring.
“We will come back to life, and we will have a rebirth,” he said. “And that’s what spring is all about.”
Efforts to contain virus continue across states
President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration Saturday for Wyoming, the final state to get one. It makes federal funds available to supplement state and local efforts to deal with the pandemic.
A state declaration of disaster also focuses the entire state government on the emergency and heightens awareness. Declarations also allow governors to sidestep certain laws and regulations.
The US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Washington, DC, Guam and Puerto Rico have also been declared disasters.
Cuomo said he will sign an executive order directing employers to provide essential workers with a cloth or surgical face mask – free of cost to the worker – when they are interacting with the public.
Cuomo said a decision had not been made on closing New York City schools through the end of the academic year. The day prior he disputed an announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio that schools would close while students continue remote learning.
De Blasio said Saturday evening he and the governor would always “work things through in the common interest of our people.”
A convention center in Atlanta will be temporarily converted into a hospital ahead of a potential surge in cases, Gov. Brian Kemp said Sunday, citing an anticipated peak on April 26. The facility will provide 200 beds.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott extended a disaster declaration for the state, urging Texans to continue to socially distance and adhere to guidelines laid out by officials.
Illinois, which now has more than 20,800 cases, announced its second highest day of deaths Saturday with 81 additional deaths.
And in New Jersey – where there were 61,850 cases as of Sunday – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is asking all businesses, including those deemed essential, to shut down for “Be Still Mondays.”
The goal is to further limit the spread of the virus as the death toll rises in the state and, according to Baraka, “We can get everything else back. What we can’t get back is people’s lives.”
Officials ponder when to reopen
Trump said Saturday night that he hopes to make a decision “fairly soon” on when to reopen the country currently shutdown by the coronavirus pandemic. He said he will set up a council to examine the issue and will base his decision on “facts” and “instinct.”
Two weeks ago, Trump said he wanted to open the country by Easter, but Friday he said he wouldn’t do anything until he knew the country was healthy again. Internally, officials are pushing to reopen the country by next month, with specific discussions underway about May 1, a person familiar with the talks told CNN.
Cuomo this weekend has pointed to positive changes in data as evidence that New York state has reached the apex of its curve, which he has described in recent days as a plateau where numbers level off before eventually dropping.
But the state will not be able to reopen without federal assistance, Cuomo said.
“Nobody wants to pick between a public health strategy and an economic strategy, and as governor of this state, I’m not going to pick one over the other,” he said. “We need a public health strategy that is safe, that is consistent with an economic strategy.”
Many officials have agreed that more testing is needed before the country can begin a return to normal.
As a result, health experts have turned an eye toward developing antibody tests, which could verify whether a person recently had the virus, potentially protecting them from re-infection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN Friday that such tests could be available “within a period of a week or so.”
Such tests are not only seen as key to resuming normal life, but they’re also vital for health care workers and frontline professionals fighting the pandemic.
“If their antibody test is positive, one can formulate strategies about whether or not they would be at risk or vulnerable to getting re-infected,” he explained, adding tests that diagnose a current infection would still be important.
Cuomo said he would sign an executive order to expand the number of people who are eligible for testing.
Earlier mitigation efforts could have saved lives, Fauci says
Government projections obtained by The New York Times show that if stay at home orders were lifted after a month, there would be a bump in demand for ventilators and the US death toll could see a dramatic increase to 200,000, the Times reported.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects that if the country keeps social distancing measures until the end of May, about 61,500 Americans will lose their lives to the virus by August.
Still, Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, on Sunday conceded lives would have been saved had efforts to contain the virus been put in place earlier.
“Obviously you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
His comments came after The New York Times detailed the Trump administration’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic and how President Trump ignored his advisers’ warnings.
“But you’re right,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, if we had right from the very beginning shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different.”
CNN’s Devan Cole, Christina Maxouris, Kevin Bohn, Sam Fossum, Artemis Moshtaghian and Kaylene Chassie contributed to this report.